Wild About Mutualism

It sounds like a pitch for a children’s book: a coyote and a badger roam across the prairie, working together to hunt ground squirrels. In reality, it’s an example of mutualism, where two species work together in a way that benefits both. 

A coyote and a badger sit together in the middle of a prairie. These two species are often observed hunting cooperatively.
Badger and coyote. Photo by Larry Lamsa CC by 2.0, via Flickr.

While cooperative relationships between predators are less common, mutualism is found throughout the plant and animal world. Probably the most familiar example is between flowering plants and pollinators, where plants give up nectar in exchange for having their pollen transferred to a neighbouring flower. Along these same lines, pitcher plants in Borneo have unique mutual relationships with tree shrews, where the pitcher plant provides food for the shrews, who reciprocate by leaving their droppings in the plant’s pitcher as a source of nutrients. 

A large bat licks at the stamens of a flower to eat the nectar. The bat's face is coated in yellow pollen.
Grey-headed Flying Fox eating nectar and distributing pollen by Andrew Mercer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While plants are more passive participants in these relationships, other examples of cooperation have two species actively contributing to each other’s mutual benefit. Like the coyote and badger, zebras and ostriches take advantage of each other’s strengths—smell and hearing for zebras, eyesight for ostriches—to watch for predators. Humans aren’t exempt from mutualistic relationships. In Africa, a species of bird called honeyguides lead people to beehives in exchange for access to larvae that are discarded when extracting the honey. 

Science tends to view mutualism in practical terms—what is the tangible benefit that each species receives from the relationship? From a human perspective, perhaps we should consider mutual relationships that provide us with other benefits. When we hang a bird feeder in our backyard, we receive the joy of observing nature in exchange for a handful of sunflower seeds. LIkewise, when we plant ornamental plants, as we have done for millenia, we exchange nourishment and protection for those species for the enjoyment of their beauty.  

Two small yellow and grey birds hang off a wire bird feeder filled with peanuts, giving people the benefit of enjoying wildlife.
Siskins on a backyard bird feeder by Mike Pennington, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Overexposure to dramatic nature documentaries and the historical narrative that nature is “red in tooth and claw” have led us to assume that nature is inherently competitive, with species desperate to climb to the top of an imaginary ladder by out-competing everything around them. Combined with a misinterpretation of the concept of the “survival of the fittest,”  we look at nature through a competitive lens. But perhaps this is our human-centered perspective influencing our assumptions about the natural world. 

What if nature is collaborative, rather than competitive? This isn’t to say that the snowshoe hare is collaborating with the lynx that stalks and eats it, but perhaps our own desire to compete has obscured the more cooperative aspects of the natural world. Take, for example, the concept of “crown shyness.” Crown shyness is the tendency of some species of trees to grow in such a manner that their branches avoid touching those of their neighbours. Not only does crown shyness indicate a level of spatial awareness between plant species (which is cool all on its own), but it demonstrates a level of cooperation whose purpose remains unknown, although scientists speculate it reduces the transfer of disease. Whatever the reasons, crown shyness is an example of a forest working together for the benefit of all. 

An overhead image of tree canopy showing distinct gaps between the trees. Known as crown shyness, it's still unclear why tree species avoid touching each other.
Crown shyness in a forest by Dag Peak, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the human context, mutualism is closely linked to reciprocity. Inherent in Indigenous relationships with the land, reciprocity calls on us to honour and give back in exchange for what we take. This practice places us into a close relationship with the land, whereby the benefits we receive are deliberately returned back to the natural world. Like the example of the coyote and the badger, the natural world is filled with collaboration. Just as the natural world isn’t naturally competitive, we too can find a way to have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. 

Additional reading: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Sweet in Tooth and Claw by Kristin Ohlson.